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     Volume 8 Issue 60 | March 6, 2009 |

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Special Feature

International Women’s Day

The Meaning of Empowerment

Firdous Azim
Photo: Pranabesh Das © Pathways, South Asia

What does the word 'empowerment' mean when applied to women's position, rights and development? The Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research programme set out to map out the processes that have contributed to women's empowerment. Was that made possible by women's greater participation in paid work, or in political processes? If so, when does paid work become empowering, or how do we facilitate women's entry into political arenas? The research is part of an international consortium, based in various universities in Egypt, Ghana and Brazil. The Bangladesh project is based in BRAC University. In order to understand what works for women, we widened our parameters to look at the cultural construction of women. Who is this woman who is struggling to garner more power for herself and how does she understand empowerment?

The research has followed some well-trodden parts, such as looking at women's engagement with paid work. We are familiar with the queues of women walking to and from work in our cities. Do these women feel empowered and what does the word mean in this context? Despite the long hours of work, women feel that they had a greater say in household matters, and consider this a measure of empowerment. We have noticed other changes; for example, our work survey, covering 5198 women, revealed that there is a declining trend towards son preference, and even if they were to have only one child, 52 % of the women surveyed said that the sex of the child did not matter.

Similarly women's political participation depended on variegated factors, including family support and status. While we keep bemoaning the fact that women politicians are usually the daughters or wives of elite or prominent families, at the local government level, the sheer presence of so many women makes a huge difference in the way that women are perceived. Quotas for directly elected seats have brought many women into political limelight. And within these structures, women are learning to fight for recognition of their spaces, even when the going is not smooth.

It is within the most unexpected arenas we found women claiming empowerment. Our research also looked at women's day-to-day involvement with religion, guided by concerns that growing religiosity may result in the greater confinement of women. Religion seems to be playing an ambiguous role. While a surprisingly large number of women report feeling empowered through religion, others felt constrained and guilty when unable to follow religious dictates strictly. This is an arena that requires more research, as religion manifests itself not only in its extreme forms, but plays a vital role in the everyday lives of women. This engagement may be read to yield fresh meanings and force us to look at the ways that women's empowerment is driven along culturally defined lines.

The cultural realm indeed provided fresh insights into the way that empowerment enters into our daily lives. We watched television with women, and while we saw how women attach meaning and significance to images that may be seen as demeaning and objectifying, we also saw how dreams are created and lives lived around these images. The act of watching is empowering, transporting women beyond the confines of their existence and bringing the larger world within their ken. And we discovered that one of the things to watch out for is who controls the remote!

The research is pushing us to reexamine the word empowerment in new and challenging ways, to take it out of its more formal meanings and to look at the ways that women themselves understand the process.

Fiedous Azim is Chairperson, English and Humanities Dept. Brac University and Lead Researcher, Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research Programme.

Agents of Change

Sheikh Tariquzzaman

Thousands of women have been working as women health workers for some decades, as this is traditionally considered as appropriate for women consistent with their caring role.

Photo: Zahedul I Khan

There are however, strong objections to their presence. As one government health inspector argued, "Government shouldn't recruit women for this post. They spend four months for maternity leave; they don't come to the office in time because of household work, they are unwilling to ride bicycles and can't conduct fieldwork properly." This is the dominant attitude regarding women's social positioning, which creates pressures on women engaged in outside employment. Yet despite such odds women health workers have tenaciously held on to their jobs and proved their worth. Here are a few examples.

Rokeya Akhter's brings in a monthly income of Tk. 16,000. She gives money to her husband, who is a retired schoolteacher, for groceries. She pays for her younger son's and daughter's education, the house rent and other daily needs. She feels that she does not have to take permission from her husband to go out for anything. She argues, "I return after I finish my work, why should I take permission for this?" Her husband does most of the household work like cooking, cleaning, sweeping, etc. A pious man, he sometimes wishes to go for Tabligh. Often he cancels his trips as he needs to look after the household and his children.

More than half of the women health workers are the main breadwinners in their families. This has positive implications for their status in the family, as they are able to take more decisions since other members depend on their earning and renegotiate their roles and responsibilities accordingly.

Amena, a senior paramedic at the Shimulia sub centre of Gonoshashtho Kendra (GK), passed her S.S.C in 1970 and joined GK in 1973. She gives family planning and child health services to the villagers. People come to her with their family problems and for information and advice in children's marriages. She discourages mothers-in-law from oppressing their daughters-in-law and has also prevented incidences of violence. Amena thinks that her role in the community has made people aware about violence against women and incidences have been reduced. She is well known in her area and everyone recognises her contribution in establishing the Shimulia sub centre which she has helped to build to its present status. When she wanted to resign for health reasons, her employers conviced her to stay on and she now occupies a permanent position in her job.

Recognition and status accorded to women health workers by their respective organisations and employers is an important pathway of women's empowerment. The status given to women health workers by their employers is mirrored in the respect shown to them by their families and communities.

Najma Akhtar, of Gonoshashtho Kendra (GK) fulfilled her dream of being doctor by becoming a paramedic. Anowara, of the BRAC community health programme says “People exclaim 'the doctor has come' wherever I go, and I am offered a chair to sit on. Everyone heeds the advice I give”. The same is true for women health workers of ICDDR,B, one of whom commented “People in the community display great hospitality and everyone calls me a doctor”.

Professional respect and status is an important pathway of empowerment in the community. The public image of the women health worker as “doctors”, “daktarni” (female doctor) or “daktar apa” (sister doctor) is a source of pride, prestige and power for the women.

The women health workers claim that their work has contributed to a decline in birth rates, maternal mortality rates and child mortality rates. These statements indicate that community health workers take pride in their professional roles and see themselves as agents of social change.

The Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research Programme's study on Women Health Workers has shown that despite the challenges that women face working in the public, their standing within the family, in the broader community and the formal space of the workplace is enhanced through their profession, indicating that the government and non-governmental Women Health Worker programmes improve women's positioning in society.

New Forms and Challenges

Sohela Nazneen and Samia Huq

Photo: Badrun Nahar Ruba © Pathways, South Asia

In recent years religious symbols such as veiling, faith based schools and Islamic television channels are entering the public landscape. These occurrences can be seen to lie in individual choice, but new forms of organissing show how groups of women seek to find meaning in their lives through these phenomena. Recently, women of all social classes coming together to discuss and better understand their religion, has become increasingly prevalent. What is it about these gatherings that draw women, especially given Bangladesh's long history of women organising? Women of Bengal have a long history of organising- against colonial powers, for advancement of their rights and to provide services for the welfare of their communities. Examples include, Lila Nag's Atmoraksha Shomiti under the Raj; All Pakistan Women's Association in the Pakistan era; Bangladesh Mahila Parishad which organised as a part of the liberation movement; and other research, activist, advocacy and issue based groups such as Nari Pokhho, Women for Women, Kormojibi Nari etc. While these groups are far from homogeneous both in constitution as well as in the particular agendas they fight for, all have taken a position vis a vis women that is defined, by them, as secular and liberal. Within this framework, issues that address women's sexuality have been approached in a strategic way. For example, interviewees of the Pathways research on women's organisations said that while the slogan “shorir amar shidhhanto amar” (my body, my choice) was unproblematically used around issues of reproductive health- advocating that women should be allowed to choose when and how many children to have- the same slogan had to be placed under the “reproductive rights” banner while being applied in the case of acid survivors and potential victims, who, the activists felt, have the right to say 'no' to a romantic proposal and end a relationship. The interviewees said that this strategic link of two diverse issues was established so that one did not have to confront the socially acceptable definition of the ideal comportment of a “good girl”. The reason for this stems from the apprehension that outside of the marital framework within which reproductive rights are located, any talk of women's rights pertaining to their bodies would bring up issues around sexuality, morality which are very closely intertwined with religion, which activists believed should be a private matter. By keeping sexuality, morality and religion at bay, feminists left the ground open for new kinds of organising, where the premise of religion as private would be turned on its head. By foregrounding their position on sexuality in a way that endows women with a sense of agency, groups organising around religion appeal to the average Bangladeshi woman ranging from students, house wives of different socio-economic backgrounds, and young and old professionals.

Photo: Bappi Trivedy © Pathways, South Asia

Thus taleem- classes based on readings from the Quran, hadith and other religious literature proliferate. Pathways research on sexuality, religion and empowerment finds that the average woman- be it the factory worker in peri-urban Bangladesh, or the student of public as well as private universities like the idea of taleem, where projects of change are anchored by clearly spelling out ideal roles, behaviour and dispositions of the “good Muslim girl”. For example, women preachers and followers argue that “answers” to acid violence lie not only in changing the law and increasing the severity with which offenders are to be punished, but that prevention needs to begin at the very personal level. So, women should first take the responsibility of covering themselves properly- not to exempt men of their responsibility in curtailing lewd and violent behaviour, but to excel in their own role in obedience to God and the maintenance of social order. So, their particular position on sexuality- that it needs to be contained in specific ways gains legitimacy as part of a larger project that is asserted as ultimately beneficial to women. Equating specific modes of containing sexuality with power and accountability, women draw a sense of worth as gendered and sexual beings, and find purpose in participating in such groups. Women in these groups also take power beyond the domestic and sexual realms to influence and reconfigure their existing roles in more “public” projects. In doing so, they draw on ideas such as “women's advancement” “the modern woman”, “liberation and emancipation”, “justice and dignity”- notions historically affiliated with a liberalist discourse.

Drawing from insights gained in the research, we feel that the vacuum left by feminists calls for greater reflection in understanding why new forms of organising are gaining momentum. Given that issues of sexuality and morality play a large part in the lives of women, is it opportune for feminists to rethink and reconfigure their process of organising to better accommodate the needs of the average woman?

Sohela Nazneen, Ph.D is Associate Professor of International Relations at University of Dhaka , and Research Fellow at the Pathways of Women's Empowerment Project.

Samia Huq is a Ph.D candidate in anthropology at Brandeis University. She is a researcher in the Pathways of Women's Empowerment project and Senior Research Associate at the BRAC Development Institute (BDI), BRAC University.

New Spaces, New Choices

Aaanmona Priyadarshini and Samia Afroz Rahim

Photo: Md. Moniruzzaman © Pathways, South Asia

We are watching television with women in a low-income household in Gerua, Savar when a middle aged neighbour walks in. She asks if we are have come 'disher thaike?' assuming that inquiries about women's viewing patterns could only be of interest to those involved with the cable and media industries. We smile and nod. She immediately voices her demands and requests us to show more programmes on TV that depict women differently and in powerful positions- being a “boss” in the office, riding a Honda motorcycle or working as a RAB police officer and chasing criminals. She wants to see images of women that are different from how she is traditionally depicted and asked us if we could take her message to the media companies.

We were surprised to hear these comments from the woman. We might have expected these remarks from a college educated person, but that these views about showing different representations on television were generated by an illiterate woman barely eking out a living, was eye-opening. How advanced was her thinking that she, whose life is largely circumscribed to the four walls of her house and to the task of looking after her four children, wanted to see women in positions that are not commonly conjured of? She commented that diverse images of women, of women engaging in all manners of job and undertaking different kinds of responsibilities will expand the horizons of women's minds and enable her to imagine the variety of all that she can achieve. She said watching these images will influence younger women and offer them many more roles and aspirations to follow. The woman commented that she may never be able to experience the kind of life that is depicted on television, but just watching these representations enable her to imagine that it is possible.

This is the lure and magic of television- it allows us to not only relate to our own realities but also enables us to relate to other people's realities. The findings from Media and Women research project under the Changing Narratives of Sexuality theme of the Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research Programme has shown that this envisioning of different ways of existence both for one self and others provides viewers with hope and a promise of different realities. In this way, television offers spaces for its viewers to imagine alternative worlds and incorporate varying subjectivities. Some may say that the media only objectifies women and reinforce existing power structures. While this may hold true, the television also stokes hope and aspirations for new realities and this can lead to a reconfiguring of viewer's own lives. The potentialities of empowerment remain nascent now, but it can be realised through further engagement. For a start, we can begin by fracturing the stereotypes, replacing dominant narratives with a diversity of representations and having media producers create programmes that depict more equitable gender relations. Time and further research might show whether the engagement with television will lead to new ways of being or if it will simply reconfigure the existing parameters of women's lives.


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